When to use hyphens

Hyphens are hard-working but often ignored punctuation marks. They aid clarity and can make your writing look more elegant. If you’re wondering when to use them, here are a few quick guidelines that should make things easier.

There are not many hard and fast rules about when to use hyphens, and if you check a range of dictionaries you’ll find they often contradict each other. It’s probably more important to decide on how you’re going to use hypens in a particular document and be consistent throughout than to find the ‘right’ use of them.

As a broad generalisation, British English tends to use hypens more often than American English, with Australian English somewhere between.

Hyphens are cool

Hyphens are terrific little pieces of punctuation. They can make the difference between being given a bunch of flowers and a farewell card – ‘I intend to resign this year’ – and being congratulated for a contract extension – ‘I intend to re-sign this year.’

Check your Style Guide

First of all, check your organisation’s style guide. Universities, colleges, businesses and government organisations all have specific rules about spelling, grammar and punctuation to keep their communication consistent.
So, if there’s a style guide, use that.
My personal style guide uses ‘Nonfiction’ instead of ‘Non-fiction’ whenever I’m talking about that genre of writing. This is because there is no confusion about what this subject is and I prefer the look without a hyphen.

Use hyphens to aid clarity

Hyphens are used when to omit them would create confusion. For example, ‘resign’ means to leave a job and ‘re-sign’ means to sign again. Hence the example above.

Similarly, ‘Please re-cover that book’ has a completely different meaning from ‘Please recover that book.’
The first example means ‘to cover the book again’ and the second means to ‘find it’.

It’s also best to use hyphens to avoid doubled-up vowels that might confuse the reader.

For example, you would say ‘de-ice’ (to remove ice from something) instead of ‘deice’ (which is a nonsense word).

Of course, there are exceptions. Words most of us are familiar with, such as ‘cooperation’ and ‘coordinate’, don’t use a hyphen as their meaning is clear.

Hyphens in phrases

Hyphens are used to link the components of compound words used as a phrase when they appear as adjectives before a noun. For example, ‘They showed me their up-to-date accounts.’

Note, though, that this doesn’t apply when the phrase comes after the noun. For example, you would say, ‘They showed me that their accounts were up to date.

Don’t use hyphens with adverbs

Here we have one of the few hard and fast rules about hyphens: never hyphenate an adverbadjective combination. If you’re not sure what an adverb is, remember that many, but not all, of them end in ‘ly.
For example, we don’t say, ‘A happilymarried’ We say, ‘A happily married couple.’

Hyphens with prefixes

A prefix is a word part that goes in front of another word to modify that word.

For example, the prefix ‘post-‘ placed in front of the word ‘natal’ changes the meaning from ‘at birth’ to ‘after the birth’. Similarly, placing ‘counter-‘ in front of ‘intuitive’ changes the meaning of ‘intuitive’ to ‘not intuitive’. Prefixes nearly always join to their buddy word with a hyphen.

…which is why we use ‘non-hyphenated’ instead of ‘nonhyphenated’.

‘Nonhyphenated’ also looks weird to me , so I would always hyphenate it, regardless of any grammar rule.

If you would like to read a longer, more detailed explanation, check out the Australian Government Style Manual.





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